Gear Heads

Collectors of survival equipment have a craving for flight helmets, life vests, ejection seats—even shark repellant.

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LeBeau goes to greater lengths every year to add to his collection because the pool of surplus parts is shrinking. “The lawyers are scaring everyone, including the military,” he says. “Thirty years ago all this stuff was just sold ‘as is.’ Then for a few years the military started asking itself, ‘Could anyone possibly be hurt by this thing?’ Now, instead of trying to figure that out, they just destroy everything that they don’t have any use for.”

Not long after the Persian Gulf War, the Department of Defense realized that it had scores of warehouses full of obsolete equipment meant to support a seven-year war. There was a huge sell-off, and people with a “buy a jeep for a buck” attitude started showing up at DRMO auctions. “They weren’t collectors,” LeBeau says. “They’d paid some ripoff artists hundreds of dollars to take a weekend seminar on how to buy surplus stuff and get rich. We used to see them at the auctions. The ‘clipboard people,’ we called them. The clipboards were the only thing of value they got at the seminars.”

The get-rich stories are out there, but rare today. LeBeau’s favorite is about a guy who bought a couple of hundred surplus aircraft after World War II for a million dollars. He drained the fuel out of them, LeBeau explains with an admiring chuckle, and sold it back to the government, earning a couple of million bucks for a month’s work.

Besides similar backgrounds, Patterson and LeBeau share a nagging feeling that the whole preoccupation manifests a certain character defect, and that the hobby may be larger and darker than it appears. Patterson and Mattsson both refer to themselves as “obsessive-compulsive.” Both men, in candid self-examination, used the improbably paired phrases “anal retentive” and “ejection seat” in the same sentence.

But theirs is a fascination of depth that includes years of study and cataloguing, a continual refining of expertise, and a constant insistence on accuracy and authenticity that few hobbies demand. All three men have dedicated untold hours of research to their mania and have acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of warbird survival equipment that spans six decades. They maintain libraries of technical manuals, parts catalogues, and volumes of notes on their collections. Patterson has more than 50 three-inch-thick binders full of information. LeBeau’s catalogue, “Aviation Artifacts, Inc.,” is a collectible in its own right. The didactic narratives he writes for every item in the catalogue are widely regarded as a reference work for collectors. But for all their studiousness, all three men refer to their hobbies as something weirder than, say, collecting fountain pens.

Out on the flightline at Luke, Patterson pokes his head into an F-16 cockpit while giving a quick description of the ACES II ejection seat. He can look at any small part—a buckle, a piece of webbing, a bolt—and tell you the part number, where it was manufactured, how much it cost, and what it replaced. But while walking back into a hangar he reflects on what really keeps his obsession going. “That cockpit smell, did you notice it?” Not waiting for an answer, he says, “Strange combination: B.O., jet fuel, wiring, hydraulic fluid. I sure like the attached memories. I smelled that in cargo planes, jump planes, police helicopters, and my blood pressure jumps a couple notches every time.”

Patterson is unusual among most collectors in that he served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, “ferrying parts and people over there in C-141s and bringing bodies back,” he says. In general, collecting survival equipment is not a hobby dominated by people who actually used the items in flight. The pilots and aircrews don’t seem compelled to revisit and collect reminders of that period of their lives. “The pilots talk about spending endless hours in uncomfortable seats with helmet headaches and throbbing feet, and they aren’t too nostalgic,” LeBeau explains. “Less than five percent of my customers actually used this stuff.”

The longing to possess a piece of military history seems to be linked to the coming of age rituals and “testing one’s mettle” that combat survivors have gone through. For noncombatants, there’s a compulsion to connect with the courage, the patriotism, the camaraderie and discipline that, ideally, military service embodies. The accoutrements, certain colors and fabrics, certain smells, and the tools and furniture of war can be helpful when trying to get in touch with one’s inner soldier.

In 15 years of dealing, LeBeau has made one sale to a woman: a piece of parachute harness. “These really are boy toys,” he says. “Most women are either indifferent to this stuff, or, in the case of married women, they hate it. They look at a helmet and would rather see a piece of jewelry.”

The best thing that happened to LeBeau’s then-fledgling business was the release of Top Gun, in 1986, after which an obscure hobby went more or less mainstream. “Collectors get turned on to this stuff because of movies, fantasy,” LeBeau believes. “Of course Hollywood doesn’t give a damn about authenticity, but people see something like Top Gun and everybody wants to be Maverick or Goose or Iceman. There are clubs in California where guys get dressed up in this stuff and say lines from the movie to each other. Don’t talk to Lee Patterson about that. He’ll tell you that those guys are wrecking historic equipment. He’s probably right.”

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